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Pursuing continuous improvement goes hand in hand with lots of changes in an organisation. Although beneficial long-term, these changes often create the need for staff training which can give rise to its own set of problems. How do you make sure the training is effective and benefits everyone?

Understanding how people learn can be valuable when developing a training plan and helps ensure that changes are implemented efficiently.


Understanding how people learn

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) is a model of learning through experience.

 “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38).

It was developed by David Kolb, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and is widely recognised by academics, teachers, managers and trainers as fundamental in understanding human learning. It suggests that people naturally prefer a certain style of learning, and outlines four distinct styles based on a four-stage learning cycle.

A cycle describing how people learn through experience.

The Learning Cycle

The cycle describes how learning occurs are a person has an experience (concrete experience). When they think about the experience (reflective observation), they develop conclusions or new ideas about it (abstract conceptualisation). These can then be tested (active experimentation) and, in turn, create new experiences. Learning is most effective when people go through all of these stages, or ‘touch all bases’ in the ELT cycle.

Note – people often think that a ‘concrete experience’ must be something a person has physically done. This is not the case. Being told new information, or reading it in a book, are still ‘experiences’.


Learning Styles

The second aspect of ELT describes the different styles of learning, and why people naturally have a preference. This preference can be influenced by many factors (including development, and educational or work experience). It can also change depending on the task a person is faced with. However, it boils down to two decisions.

When faced with a task, people decide:

  • how to approach it – watching or doing (known as the Processing Continuum) and
  • how to respond to it – thinking or feeling (known as the Perception Continuum).

diagram showing the relationship between two factors (processing and perception) that determine a persons preferred learning style.

The different combinations of these decisions lead to a preference for one of the four styles:

  • Diverging: feel and watch. These learners view a situation from different perspectives and generate lots of ideas. They are often imaginative and emotional people.
  • Assimilating: think and watch. These learners are interested in logical sounding theories and clear explanations over practical approaches. They value conciseness and logic.
  • Converging: think and do. They are accepting of new ideas and often technically minded. These learners like to use their learning and thinking to find practical solutions.
  • Accommodating: feel and do. They have a hands on approach, often relying more on intuition than logic




These aspects all combine to create the ELT, as shown here.

Cycle showing how people learn from experience and develop preferences for learning style.




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Further reading

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) and Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) were published in his 1984 book ‘Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development‘.



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